Sky Dancing

Like its northern counterpart, this southern member of the circus genus - the Cinereous Harrier - fills the classic harrier niche over the grasslands and steppes of the Southern Cone, with a disjunct population in the northern Andes.

For the couple of years I worked out of El Calafate I spent many days (either alone or finding birds for clients) at the small Laguna Nimez nature reserve sandwiched between the town and the vast glacial Lago Argentino.

Here, I got to know one pair of harriers very well, watching their courtship and the eventual rearing of a young harrier.

During the courtship period the birds were very territorial, with both male and female occasionally dive-bombing the heads of any humans that crossed their territory. A bird bearing down on you is fun when it's an arctic tern, but kind of scary when it's a large harrier.  One of my clients even lost a hat.

Getting ready to strafe someone's head - talons out, eyes fixed. 

A big part of harrier courtship is the swapping of gifts - usually a prey item, like a small passerine.

Here you can just see the 'gift' - a small passerine, which I never figured out to species - in the talons of the harrier as she comes over to investigate my presence:

The gift exchange involves some spectacular aerobatics, as one bird twists upside down to make the catch. In weeks of watching, I never saw a drop. Interestingly over the days I watched them, they seemed to retain the same 'gift' as it was passed between the pair, and always carried it in the same talon! Presumably at some point it was 'refreshed' to avoid the risk of parasites.

Here two females court in the air above the marshland. I never figured out why same sex courtship was so prevalent in this location. Worldwide, harriers are pretty notorious for their polygyny (and occasional accounts of polyandry have been recorded in northern hemisphere harriers), as are many marshland species of other avian families, but I never found much documentation of same-sex courtship within harriers, polygynous or otherwise.

Moreover, Simmons, in his Harrier monograph, suggests that polygyny is rare in southern hemisphere taxa:

The female sits in  a senecio bush - about as tall a vantage point as it's possible 
to gain in this xerophytic steppeland.

Most harriers share the owl-like facial disk and the cinereous is no exception. Hunting grassland and marsh its parabolic function is a lesser but similar adaptation for aural hunting that owls have phenotypically expressed even further.

The female brings in nesting material 

Hunting involves a technique that is well known in both northern and hen harriers, the tapping of the grass with the wingtips, to flush prey. Here the female exhibits the classic drop-like-a-rock technique.

The sadly defunct quarterly 'coffee table' magazine, Bird Art & Photography, ran some of my harrier shots, (alongside some much better Condor shots of my brother's)...

The position of cinereous harrier in the monophyletic harrier clade also reveals a lot about our own northern harrier.

One reason the NACC should accept the split (UPDATE, IT FINALLY DID ;) between hen harrier and northern harrier is that based on mtDNA evidence (although not enough base pairs were tested according to some of the NACC committee), cinereous is sister to northern harrier, and closer to it than the purportedly 'conspecific' hen harrier of the WP.

Even the BOU recognised this split earlier in 2016 - which I was very happy about as my upland farm in the UK's Peak National Park is one of the only sites in the UK where the heavily persecuted hen harrier can still be seen!

A male harrier shows his displeasure at the chimango caracara flying through his territory

The harriers carry on courting as the sun sets over Patagonia. 


Ruff vs Pokemon

This is not the ruff I saw.

The ruff I saw wore a ruff unlike the ruff this ruff wore.

Nonetheless, a bird that breeds only a few miles from where I grew up, and which I'd not seen since a wintering flock in India 13 years ago, turned up at the DeKorte meadowlands yesterday.

It was brutally hot, even at 9am when I got the alert. I persuaded Margaux to come with me - promising she could catch some rare marsh Pokemon, and possibly chuck my phone into the water.

We arrived to find an active wader scene, with hundreds of semi-sands and good numbers of least, lifting and scattering among the more stately short-billed dowitchers and yellowlegs.

Dragging Margaux along the boardwalk, we passed a laughing sora and a distant pectoral sandpiper. Then, almost swimming through the heavy fetid air, to where the ruff was last seen, we found a group of locals who were clearly on the ruff. As someone quickly offered us newcomers a scope view, it flushed.

We all bailed back the way we'd come, getting on a hunting least bittern quickly. This is the first (and only) time I've dismissed a least bittern with such a perfunctory glance.

Rounding a phragmite island, we finally relocated the ruff as it foraged in deep water with a group of lesser and a couple of greater yellowlegs. Whilst it had moulted out of anything approaching breeding extravagance, the plumage retained some beautiful deep russet, black and white colors and the inimitable loose mantle feathers.

It took a while to help Margaux scan through the yellowlegs, but when she said; 'Oh is it the hairy one?' I knew she'd got on it.

A lifer for her (as are most things still, being only 6), and a US bird for me.

We drank it in, then lay in the shade, while I explained that ruff's are pretty cool because some males are faeders, having a autosomal-dominant allele that causes them to express female phenotypes their entire lives. And that this female mimicry is possibly a very clever mating strategy in a world gone mad with crazy ornamental plumage and constant lekking.

She didn't quite agree.

But she did forget about the Pokemon.

*Whoever's ruff picture this is, sorry for stealing it, but it was on google ;)


Year of the seagull

This is turning out to be a good year for gulls, for me. Having had both Kumliens and Glaucous on the Hudson river outside my apartment, this morning I turned up a Franklin's gull in a large flock of laughing gulls at Port Liberte.

I reckon this is one of the most under-rated and under-birded spots in the county. It doesn't help that the access is a bit unreliable, as you have to park in a gated community, which is ostensibly private. I keep the same visitor permit in my windshield that they gave me back in 2011, and it's worked out ok so far though! So much for security.

I walked through today to look for breeders, and harboring a wishful notion that the strong easterlies the night before may have pushed an interesting tern into the bay.

I found the Franklin's on the beach, foraging among horseshoe crabs. There were around 50 laughers present, and I had a fair bit of luck rather than careful scanning; those big white eye arcs just popped on the first pass!

With no camera, all i managed were a few cellphone shots. But it was cool to see a species familiar from wintering grounds up here at the opposite end of the continent. As the tide peaked the birds took flight occasionally. Franklins are the only gulls that moult twice a year - presumably an adaptation to the length of their migration. And whilst this bird was just finishing, it showed the classic wingtip pattern, as well as being noticeably smaller than its surrounding congeners.

Summer slowdown

Whilst birding here doesn't quite stop dead the way it did back in England, where July sees virtually everything go into moult and hiding, it's not exactly hopping. So I've been catching up on some reading, as well as the occasional foray to look for breeders.

Latest read is Clive Finlayson's epic tome. 

Drawing extensively on the fossil record, it shines a unique light on avian biogeography - and makes a convincing case for shifting distributions in response to climatic change, over the more expected speciation/extinction in situ.  

Well worth the read - I wish we had the same for the Western Hemisphere! 


Mourning Warbler

I saw my first mourning warbler nearly 15 years ago, on wintering grounds in Costa Rica. I don't actually remember it, partly because I saw 70 other species that day which included some of my favorite antbirds and other furnariids. And probably because as a South American birder I didn't really register that this was one of those 'special' warblers on the opposite side of the hemisphere.

Now I know why, as nemesis species go, mourning warbler seems to be a popular choice.

A friend of mine found one in lower Manhattan last year, by which point it was a bird I still hadn't seen in the States, so deigned to chase.

Instead, I found two Connecticut warblers, which most people would be stoked with.

But I just wanted my Mourning.

Then, 10 days ago, I heard one sing.

A week later I saw one. In flight. WTF. This is not a bird you want to see in flight.

Finally, today, one was being as cooperative as a MOWA can get. Which means people saw it, people heard it. People heard tape from other people. People saw other people see the bird.

I walked round the pocket of water (Upper Lobe in Central Park) for a few hours. It would only sing at hourly intervals. Usually just once. Less than helpful. Taunting, even. 

Gradually, people started to see it.

But, in the spirit of all great nemesis birds, wherever it was, I wasn't. And wherever I went, yellowthroats tricked me with rustles in the groundcover.

I even blithely ignored a gray-cheeked thrush that sauntered past.

Then, around midday, as I accepted it was 90 degrees, I needed food, and it hadn't sung for hours, it popped up.

I saw it sally. I saw it sing. I saw the sombre cloak of mourning. It lasted 5 seconds, but it was enough.

I even got a shitty iphone recording of the one song I actually saw it sing....

Mourning warbler song

Postscript: I realized looking through my records that I'd seen all of the 'wanted' warblers - golden-winged, prothonotary, kentucky etc first on wintering grounds (even after I'd moved to the USA, in the case of those three). Odd? I don't really know. I was probably lucky with the golden-wingeds given its population size and large wintering distribution.  


Curious Curassows

I snagged a copy of Lyncx Ediciones 'Curassows' monograph the other day. What a book!

When did you last see the downy young for every taxa illustrated in such beautiful detail?

Owl Pandemonium

It's a tough life for a newly fledged owl.

At one of my local micro-patches of woodland, the longtime resident great horned owls have raised two young. 

Fresh out the nest on its maiden voyage, this ball of fluff saw nature red-in-tooth-and-claw yesterday, in the imposing form of a mature redtail barreling out of the sky.

The first chase left the young owl stranded, wings caught agape in the crown of a high oak. After mewling for five minutes it finally struggled free in a shower of leaves.

The second chase showed how fast a learning curve these young birds have; this time the owl enticed his pursuer down under the crowns and skillfully flew through the canopy. The redtail made a couple of jinks on his tail but bailed upwards through a gap in the trees, thwarted. 

The mother owl cruised by shortly afterwards but didn't intervene in (or perhaps never saw) either of the redtail attacks.

The usual bluejays' badgering of the owl rose to a crescendo in the aftermath of the chase, with at least 6 of them orbiting the fledgling as he tried to recover his grace and composure. Emboldened by the owl's confusion, even a couple of warblers and chickadees joined in.

You never know what you'll see when you walk in the woods.


Iceland Gull vs Yellow-throated warbler

My new yard bird seems to be settling in. She's been here for over two weeks now. She's pure white, hinting at her arctic provenance. She's delicate, dainty even, yet nonchalantly aggressive with the herring gulls. Once in a while, she'll even deign to challenge the great black-backs.

She's an iceland gull; a first cycle bird so bleached she could be a white kumliens* or rare glaucoides.

In my wilderness-starved apartment, it's fun to wake up each morning, look through the window and see her on the pier, wandering among the loafing locals.

One day during her sojourn, a glaucous gull turned up, loafed a little, but didn't stay. The chances of me happening on this glaucous by chance among the 150 herrings and black-backs, had I not been scanning for the iceland, are very small.**

So, she also brought me a new county-bird, in the form of her bigger, badder cousin. Thank you.

(Contender for worst glaucous pic ever - cellphone + scope at 60x + bedroom window glass - but you can still see that inimitable beady glaucous eye) 

Finally, a few days ago, I saw her over on the Manhattan side, while on the way to twitch a yellow-throated warbler in Central Park.

Two birds I'd never have expected to see on the same day, let alone both in Manhattan.

* Iceland gull taxonomy is a mess. My view would be that there are two species - Thayers in the west (darkest) and nominate Iceland in the east (palest), with kumliens representing a hybrid swarm between the two. But this is unproven, based on sampling on wintering not breeding grounds, ungrounded in any kind of molecular analysis, and wrought by many phenotypic issues. Not least like the one represented by this bird, which is closer to glaucoides than kumliens in many plumage details.  

**Moral of that story - when you see a screech of gulls, give it a quick look!


Field Sparrow

My office patch, the Clinton Community Garden on 48th and 10th, has exploded in the last few days. New beehives are up and active. Insects are hatching everywhere. And this cutie turned up, my first for the year!


healing wildlife

Liverpool Neurological Hospital is now a better place for recuperating patients, with their recent installation of some of my brother's images.

Following a special commission for local wildlife from the hospital, Ben's shots now adorn the walls,

and even the ceiling - in the form of two giant backlit mosaics! 


Parks in NYC, traps or oases?

Last night saw the first of the Linnaean Society of New York's meetings for 2016, and they'd invited me and four other panelists to an hour's discussion on a topic close to my heart...

The topic? A favorite of urban birders confined to cities the world over; how do micro-parks and urban habitats impact on the ecology and stopover behavior of migrants?

Opening the evening, NYC activist and Bryant Park aficionado Gabriel Willow brought some provocative insights and anecdotes, (lots of which involved rare birds taking a rest on Corey's shoes) and some pretty cool mapping - visualising the scattergun distribution of green spots south of Central Park.

          L-R, Corey, Gabe, Eric, Heather, me

As Jacob Drucker dissected in this article (which precipitated last night's event), why do some of these spots concentrate birds and others not?  Do closely-spaced, small patches - think West Village or Hell's Kitchen, provide better stopover habitat than isolated big patches - like Bryant Park, which beckons like a false beacon under the neon towers of Midtown. Do manicured lawns with a continuous canopy of London planes work better than tumble-down community gardens, crammed with shrub diversity? What role do unseen green-roofs play?

This sapsucker stayed on my roof garden in Hell's Kitchen for over a week, 
drilling hundreds of sap wells into the small stand of 15 silver birches, which in turn attracted invertebrates, 
which attracted yellow-rumps, and so on....

It's a fascinating topic, and what became apparent over the evening, was that none of us panelists really knew. 

Migrants are opportunists, sure. They're flexible, behaviorally. You have to be if you weigh 12 grams and you're going to make it from the boreal forest to the beaches of Suriname. But why do some migrants turn up more than others? Why do some stay, and others leave? Does switching diet from arthropods to Starbucks muffin crumbs pack on the fat they'll metabolise through the thousands of miles of further flight to reach the wintering grounds? Or are they merely waiting to die? Questions that really deserve serious study.

While we were talking I was thinking of the investigations done by Daniel Janzen and others into minimum viable habitat size in Amazonia, and the effects of fragmentation on biodiversity in the forest. Here, cut one road, and some species will never cross it. The dynamism of NYC is the opposite of the stability of a rainforest, but the same techniques could be brought to bear to unlock and understand this dynamic system. 

Eric later reminded me of this proposal to turn Broadway into a bio-corridor, a long thin park stretching the length of Manhattan and cutting a sanctuary of sorts through its concrete heart...

This is a microcosm of the same corridor principle that is currently resurrecting the hope of wildlife in India, Brasil, Borneo. Corridors are normally last ditch efforts to stem fragmentation of unaltered habitats, a bas-relief left from the attrition of the land around. But what could a newly-minted corridor add to a landscape already at the limit of utility for most wildlife?

It seems to me that this most densely populated (and wealthiest) of places, sitting as it does on one of the world's critical migratory flyways, ought to be able to muster the motivation (and funding) to really study the problem and the possible solutions, a little bit more. 

Whether we end up reclaiming and rewilding Broadway, or just incentivize more green roofs, we'll make one of the world's most vibrant cities that bit more vibrant.

I have no idea what this leaning catbird was doing. 
Am pretty sure he was sunbathing, which I guess is what you do, in Bryant Park.  

Postscript: Here's what a Tokyo micropark looks like... Nano-park?


Lost in translation

Kazakhstan should be more popular with birders.

It's an unsung gem of a country, one I visited very briefly in 2008, working on a communications campaign for the Kazakh government.

Birding-time was fleeting; snatched moments and quick glimpses between work and client dinners (one which involved getting driven miles out of the city to a strangely palatial restaurant where we sat in a private room, smoked weed and politely drank sour yak milk - a delicacy here and utterly rancid).

Anyway, having just taken delivery of the (mighty) new Chats and Robins monograph, I was trying to work out a couple of female-type redstarts that went frustratingly unidentified at the time.

To help me, I turned to the Kazakh birders Facebook page, which is all in Russian.

Which brings me in a roundabout way to the point of this post; the Russian names, once Google has auto-translated them into English turn out to be awesome!

Barred warbler, becomes Hawk warbler! How apt is that for this giant of warblers?

The lowly water rail becomes the water shepherd...

And the sought-after Himalayan specialty, the white-browed tit-warbler, simply becomes PAINTED BIRD;

Changes your perceptions of things seeing new names, right?


Christmas Counting

Sunday 20th saw the first real cold front push into the NYC area. Listservs and twitterspheres abounded with news of lark sparrows, painted buntings and the occasional rare gull. Would the northerlies bring fresh birds for the Christmas Bird Count?

Spoiler alert; not really. At least not for the Lower Hudson count.

But we tried anyway. I was assigned a northern section of the Lower Hudson count  (which spans Manhattan, the Hudson River, and much of Jersey City and Secaucus). Whilst those in Central Park had hundreds of eyes on their teams, I was relying on Coloradan artist and birder Cathy Sheeter to double the eye-count.

The early strategy involved checking those iconic, apocalyptic Jersey wasteland-type places. Industrial warehouses lining fetid canals. Overgrown and long-forgotten parking lots. Those last redoubts of concrete-interred mafia bodies, starlings and the occasional ghostly barn owl.

promising wildlife habitat in Hudson, NJ

My local Hoboken wasteland was empty, save for a song sparrow, two newly arrived ruddy ducks (a full month after they arrived here last year), and two flightless canada geese who are being kept alive by a crazy woman who cooks them pasta dishes.

Next I hit James Braddock park for woodpeckers. Mike Britt (our NJ compiler) had told me it was wise to carry a knife here. Um, ok.

Anyway, given the early hour, it was boringly devoid of gangstas. And despite forgetting to bring any weapons, I managed to get good numbers of fox sparrows, a new wave of juncos, the common woodpeckers and some nice hooded mergansers on the pool. The song of white-throated sparrows rang out through the woodland as if it were a mid-spring day.

Tracking back along the river I hit a few parking lots, getting hassled by two mall cops who couldn't fathom my accent or what I was doing squeezing through the chain link at the back of their warehouse. I later heard from Mike that one of his crew had a more serious stop-and-search by NJTransit police whilst trying to sneak into a black-crowned night heron roost.

The rest of the day went more smoothly. I met up with Cathy, we worked some of Hudson County's remnant natural habitats, picked up a pair of great horned owls, dipped on the parakeets, and watched an aerial fight between a merlin and peregrine.

All told, we got 2251 birds representing 51 species, which I think was the highest species-diversity for any of the Hudson county groups; not bad considering we didn't have any coastal or real saltwater habitat on our territory.

an adaptable resident peregrine uses flood lights for a hunting perch

Postscript: I worked out my year count for the Lower Hudson Circle was 215 this year. This might make a good (and equally arbitrary as a county boundary) territory for a Big Year, given I live and work across a state border.....


Winter is Coming

To steal the ominous language of Game of Thrones, Winter is Coming.

I can't wait. 

I just re-read Bernd Heinrich's Winter World in preparation.

It's no surprise that the wonder, intrigue and science in Winter World is far beyond anything in his other (albeit excellent) book, Summer World. The adaptations to surving in a frozen landscape are unimaginable to us temperate-world humans. From manufacturing glycerol to full cellular freezing, the litany of mechanisms to cope with cold are mind bending. 

Here's a small selection of my brother's 'Snow Portraits'. A timely reminder, for me at least, as to why winter is the season of wonder. 

For more of Ben's images, see: benhallphoto.com/


Texan vagrants, take two

The weekend did indeed bring more luck.

I'd hatched a vague plan to go meet Mike Britt at Laurel Hill to try for Golden Eagle, but he (wisely) called it off to hit the coast.

Unsurprisingly, I'd barely got out the car at Laurel when I got the text for Lapland Longspur and Bonaparte's Gull in Liberty State Park. Breaking a few speed limits, I headed over. There were a few folks on the Bonaparte's and I had a quick look through a scope before even turning the engine off. Just as well, as a harrier kited over the cove and put the birds up, and this delicate, diminutive little gull floated away on the breeze.

The gales were howling on the edge of bay, and I barricaded myself against a tree, searching in vain for the longspurs. One of my nemesis birds, and I had a creeping feeling they weren't going to just fortuitously reappear for me.

I was about done, when I looked up.

Against the blue, all 15 grams of Texan Cave Swallow rowed bravely into the howling headwind, coming in off the ocean and passing front-lit above the London plane trees. It was a fleeting moment, but its tawny rump, throat and neatly capped head were crisply illuminated by the still low sun. I later realised how different the view would have been in silhouette.

This was even better than a Franklin's gull (for me anyway - I saw many wintering Franklins living in Arg/Chile).

POSTSCRIPT: Sunday morning I was on my balcony just doing a quick scan through the gull flock that roosts on the pier below, when another bundle of hirundine energy came in off the river and hawked insects at eye-level with my 8th floor vantage point. I was torn between running 3 blocks to get my SLR out the trunk of my car, or just watching it and trying to get some video on the point-&-shoot.

I did the latter. Lesson for the day - shooting cave swallows with a tiny camera IS NOT EASY.

But the views as it hawked in the sunlight for around 30 minutes were amazing.

I put the news out on the Manhattan side and there was a bit of a scramble from friends over there to get on the same bird, but the Hudson river is nearly a mile wide here, so it was tough for those guys who hit the Chelsea pier.

It's not very often Hoboken gets one up on Manhattan on the bird front....

About Me

My photo
NYC, Buxton, Buenos Aires
I work in NYC and own a wildlife and wilderness agency specializing in the southern cone of South America. I still do some guiding down there, especially looking for Fuegian and Patagonian avifauna. I'm particularly interested in the wintering ecology of neotropical migrants, and in avian biogeography in general. You can follow me at - @domhall And find me at - AventuraArgentina.com